Book Review: Anti-Racist and More, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, by Felicia Rose Chavez

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The anti-racist writing workshop: How to decolonize the creative class
by Felicia Rose Chavez
Haymarket books, 216 pages, $14.97

Chicago’s Haymarket Books promotes The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Class by Felicia Rose Chavez as an “easy to use guide [that] explains how to recruit, nurture, and strengthen writers of color through innovative reading, writing, workshop, critique, and assessment strategies. And yes, that’s all of it. But that makes the book look like an instruction manual.

What The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop is, is Chavez’s passionate manifesto for educating students of all rainbow varieties by giving them control of their learning. I’d say it wouldn’t be a bad plan to radically improve American society either.

Giving students control over their learning involves, on the one hand, rejecting deeply ingrained patterns that force them to fit into a preconceived set of cultural values, rooted in white middle and upper class experience. It also involves the rejection of the deeply rooted model that forces them to adapt to the values ​​and way of thinking of the teacher.

As she amply acknowledges, Chavez stands on the shoulders of an array of other creative thinkers. She envisions a classroom where students are given the techniques and strategies for working together to test and refine their skills while the teacher works as a facilitator.

Chavez writes about a particular type of learning – the Creative Writing Workshop which has been commonly used in academia for almost 90 years – but the methods she promotes can be applied in classrooms at all levels. .

Chavez says that in creative writing workshops, white, middle-class teachers and students generally operate as if everyone in the class has — or should have — a common (white, middle-class) background. When students reference what it is like to live as a person of color or as someone else on the margins of society, they are silenced. They are told, writes Chavez, that they are taking politics where it does not belong.

“Winning Workshop”

This is exacerbated by the workshop approach which is rooted in fault finding. A writer sends a piece to others in the studio, then, in a meeting, sits in silence while others comment on how the piece can be improved. Anything that doesn’t fit a middle-class white mindset is a prime target for disapproval. Especially white men, as Chavez notes:

“They want to compete in the workshop. Or, more accurately, they want to win a workshop. Without admitting, of course, that the game is rigged, that they won outright, regardless of their writing ability. This coliseum mentality of brutality and bloodshed is a farce, which blinds them to the advantage of collaborative creation.

In a creative writing workshop, the teacher is also a creative writer, and the tendency, Chavez writes, is for the teacher to try to match each student to the teacher’s writing style. And/or the writing of those inscribed in the literary canon – who tend to be white males. Think of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Roth.

Instead of this competitive, flaw-finding method, Chavez details in his book a workshop model in which students join forces to grow together instead of compete. In presenting a piece, a writer tells colleagues what kind of help is needed rather than remaining silent while shooting each other. The purpose of the exercise is to help the writer, not to inflate the egos of other participants.

Felicia Rose Chavez

An important element of this, embedded in Chavez’ model workshop, is the recognition that people of color and others on the margins have different experiences than the white mainstream. As a workshop leader, Chavez underscores this by sharing with students the work of a wide range of authors.

This, of course, helps people of color and those on the margins feel more comfortable, more heard.

But, in my view, it also offers white participants a new perspective from which to look at writing and what is written – and everyday society. It broadens their horizons, deepens their understanding and enriches their lives.

“Deep Listening”

The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop is a detailed roadmap on how to set up the Chavez model and how to implement it. It is packed with methods to foster cooperation among participants, to nurture writers trying to tackle difficult topics, to help workshop participants develop constructive and productive writing rituals.

But the key to his approach is listening – by the students and the teacher: “The anti-racist writing workshop transmits a pedagogy of deep listening – to oneself, to its leader and to each member of the collective – ensuring equal access to voice.” In a section on helping students develop mindfulness, Chavez writes:

“In the middle of the workshop, I pause to remind students to tune in to their bodies… A trip to the bathroom, a sip of water, and then they are there again, more fully engaged in the art of listening. Of course, it’s about listening. Humility, at the heart of connection.

After all, isn’t the key to learning a combination of humility and listening?

Instead of teaching students to compete — to seek to win — Chavez aims to help them learn to listen. Listen to each other and, even more, to their own hearts.

“Listen instead of lecturing”

Under the Chavez model, the foreman is often silent. This, she writes, “benefits the workshop facilitator by allowing for deep listening, fostering a sense of connection, and a deeper awareness of each student.”

Later in her book, she addresses her faculty colleagues:

“Workshop facilitators, what could you learn if you reversed the hierarchy and listened instead of lectured? Specifically, what might your listening teach your workshop participants about their own inherent value as scholars, artists, and citizens? »

Obviously, the workshop leader needs to do a lot to set the stage for students to learn to listen and improve their writing in terms of craft and subject matter.

The same goes for the teacher in any class. However, as Chavez is able to do with a creative writing workshop, a teacher at any level can find ways to encourage and train students to talk about who they are and what they want. learn – to help them become impatient. to learn.

Some kind of listening, it seems to me, is essential for a teacher, and it’s the kind of approach that can transform a classroom from a regimented factory into a garden of discovery.

Anti-racism and more

Similarly, American society could benefit from this model. Think about the last team meeting you attended or the last committee meeting. How much did the leader listen to? How well did the leader make everyone feel welcome and engage everyone?

Yes, agendas must be followed and plans must be made. But there is a top-down way to approach these tasks, and then there is the Chavez model of cooperation.

And how many meetings have you attended where there is one person or maybe several who want to “win” the meeting? Who wants to show off their power, preen and talk for the sake of talking?

The approach that Chavez details in his book is anti-racist in essence. It is intended to be inclusive and welcoming. Yet it is more than a way to fight racism. It’s a way to counter bullying, oppression, and derision, much of what plagues America at this point in its history.

And it’s not a method that only helps people of color and others on the margins of American society. It is a method that enriches all participants, whether it is racing or orienteering or otherwise. It’s a more human method, a more human method.

It’s not about imposing control. It’s about sharing control. And isn’t that democracy?

The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Class is available in bookstores and on the Haymarket Books website.

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